Sometimes the Facts Don’t Match the Storylines

In her book “The Press Effect,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson devotes a chapter to what she calls “The Press as Storyteller.” In it, she uses the 1988 Willie Horton ad, the disputed 2000 presidential election, the Enron scandal and other examples to illustrate how journalists can err in their reporting. Jamieson contends that, when there is a compelling narrative surrounding an issue, reporters can miss facts and frame stories to fit that narrative.

“In a contest between data and dramatic narrative, the narrative is likely to be recalled and stored,” she wrote.

Though not as dramatic as the examples in Jamieson’s book, the coverage of the disposal of some old Hamilton Township files lends support to her argument.

There was a change in administrations in Hamilton at the start of the year and by all accounts, there is no love lost between the old and new regimes. So when a citizen discovered 20 crates of township records sitting among piles of recyclables at the Township Ecological Center, red flags went up and conspiracy theories abounded.

The Trenton Times ran the story on its first page, reporting that new Mayor John Bencivengo was investigating. The paper also recounted details surrounding the disabling of municipal building security cameras while outgoing administration officials cleaned out their desks, ranging from a verbal exchange between the outgoing mayor and politically active police officer to the new mayor’s complaint that outgoing officials had left their offices too messy.

But lo and behold it turned out to be just a big misunderstanding. The next day the Trenton Times reported that a municipal construction code official had placed the documents in the garbage as he does at this time every year when a 10-year retention period expires. The man who cleared up the mystery was Rob Warney, the township’s new director of the engineering planning and inspections. But what remains a mystery is why the newspaper didn’t talk to Warney in the first place – or at least hold off on the story until he was available to offer an explanation. Could it be because, as Jamieson suggests in her book, a case in which reporters “failed to investigate and locate the facts that would have undercut the coherence of a story being told because the lens they adopted made fact-finding seem unnecessary or irrelevant”?

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